Russian bailiffs accompanied by armed policemen searched BP's Moscow office Wednesday because of a minority shareholder's lawsuit, the company said, calling the action an illegal raid.
BP's Russian spokesman Vladimir Buyanov told The Associated Press the company was cooperating with the bailiffs. BP's office in a Moscow skyscraper was guarded by police with assault rifles, he said.
"Did they expect to meet any resistance here?" Buyanov said by telephone.
The search is connected with a lawsuit in a Siberian court. Andrei Prokhorov, an obscure minority shareholder of BP's Russian venture TNK-BP, is suing the British oil giant for allowing an Arctic exploration deal with the Russian state-owned energy firm Rosneft to fall through.
Prokhorov is seeking some $3 billion in damages. He said his interests were harmed as TNK-BP could have benefited from becoming part of the deal.
Buyanov said employees were allowed to come in with armed policemen and collect their personal things from the office in the morning, but they still did not know as of late evening Wednesday when they would be allowed back into the office.
In London, BP spokesman David Nicholas said the company does not think "there is any legitimate basis for the raid today."
He said the work of the BP PLC office was "illegally being interfered with."
The multibillion-dollar Arctic deal between BP and Rosneft collapsed earlier this year after Russian TNK-BP shareholders contested the deal. They said BP was breaking TNK-BP's shareholder agreement by entering into a deal without the venture's knowledge or consent.
Rosneft on Tuesday teamed up with Exxon Mobil in a landmark deal to develop offshore oil fields in the Russian Arctic. Rosneft's spokesman said there was no way that BP could revive the Arctic deal with Rosneft now.
Dmitry Chepurenko, an attorney for Prokhorov, said in an email that the bailiffs were enforcing Tuesday's ruling of the Tyumen Court of Appeal that ordered BP to present documents related to the planned deal with Rosneft.
Prokhorov and his team deny any links with TNK-BP's Russian management.
Major Russian companies have often used local courts as a powerful tool of negotiation and often intimidation. It is not uncommon for Russian businessmen to put forward an obscure shareholder who would sue the other side of the conflict on their behalf but would be technically independent of either parties.
In a recent shareholder row between tycoon Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group and the Norwegian telecommunication company Telenor, the Norwegians were slapped with a lawsuit from a little-known shareholder who was defending Alfa's view on the dispute over Russia's second-largest mobile phone operator VimpelCom. Both the shareholder and Alfa denied any link between them.
Alexei Kokin, senior analyst with the Moscow-based UralSib investment bank, dismissed fears that Wednesday's search could be a bad sign for BP's business in Russia, saying this does not look "like the beginning of an end" for BP in this country.
"They've been through hard times in Russia before and their business hasn't been affected," Kokin said.
Renaissance Capital investment bank vice president Ovanes Oganisian described the Russians in TNK-BP and BP's management in Russia as "seasoned players of conflict management" who "know what they're doing."
Robert Barr contributed to this report from London.